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Seeing the light, remembering the dark

Deanne Stillman's new work extols the beauty of the high desert, quite a change from her first book's portrayal.

February 04, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

THE last time Los Angeles writer Deanne Stillman published a book on the high desert, she was met with angry editorials in a local paper, a bitter letter-writing campaign and complaints from locals. She couldn't write, her hair was strange, what did she know? More important, some desert-dwellers said, her dark view of the place would drain the area of its lifeblood -- tourism.

That book, "Twentynine Palms," a tense bestseller praised by Hunter S. Thompson and compared to the work of Joan Didion, recounted the 1991 rape and murder of two local teenage girls by a Gulf War veteran stationed at the world's largest Marine base. The book's characterization of the military presence, such as her description of "the never-ending Marine war against female civilians," also drew protests.

Six years later, on a chilly evening two weeks ago, Stillman returned to the desert for a low-key event at the 29 Palms Inn and the welcome was a bit warmer.

"She nailed Twentynine Palms with that book," Bruce Miller, a mild-mannered environmental engineer who once worked on the base, whispered as admirers gathered around heat lamps. "I was surprised to hear she was coming here tonight. Very happy to be able to meet her."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Joshua trees: An article about author Deanne Stillman in Sunday's Calendar section said Joshua trees grew only in Joshua Tree National Park. They also exist elsewhere.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Joshua trees: An article about author Deanne Stillman in the Feb. 4 Calendar section said Joshua trees grow only in Joshua Tree National Park. They exist elsewhere.

And as Stillman read from her new book, "Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango," making frequent asides about the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park and threats to its flora and fauna, she was greeted like a hometown hero. Afterward, a local man stood and announced that he found the new book "an enchanting piece of poetry about a personal journey." A high school friend of Mandi Scott, one of the slain girls, went up to shake the author's hand.

The reading's sponsor, Steve Brown, who publishes the Twentynine Palms-based Sun Runner magazine, said Stillman was uncomfortable when he first asked her to be part of the literary series the magazine runs.

"She was a little hesitant about what kind of welcome she'd receive in Twentynine Palms," said Brown, who added that the magazine was flooded with e-mails objecting to the visit and at least one city councilman still bore a grudge. (Kurt Schauppner, editor of the Desert Trail newspaper, declined to comment on the author or her work.)

"They're very protective of the town out here," Brown said. "There are a lot of hard feelings. But I think the last reading kind of broke the ice and she's feeling better about coming out here."

Stillman's new book, needless to say, takes a friendlier look at the high desert. Part of the University of Arizona's "Desert Places" series, the book is an unusual hybrid, part paean to the desert, part mystical personal meditation, part reported essay with John McPhee-style research -- but with sudden asides of score-settling and Borscht Belt yuks. The writing may be uneven, but it's clear that Stillman has become one of the region's leading literary voices.

The morning after the reading, on a day so cold that patches of snow still lurked among the creosote and pinyon trees, Stillman hiked through the area called "Wonderland of Rocks," with its dramatic outcroppings of rounded, wind-sculpted stones. She recounted the forces that drew her originally to the desert, thousands of miles from the Cleveland of her birth, where, she said in her deadpan Midwestern accent, "I never felt at home, I never liked the climate. I never liked ice fishing."

As a girl, she said, "I would send away for seeds and little plants from Cactus Jack's mail order, and put them up on the windowsill. And I'd watch them against the glass during these East Ohio blizzards coming off the lake. They just always made me happy: They conjured up this land of escape."

Stillman had reason to want to escape: She lived for a time with her lawyer father and sculptor mother in a comfortable part of the city, but their divorce sent the family to a less genteel area near the local racetrack, where her mother worked.

"We would hang out at the track when we were kids and meet all of these great characters -- classic misfits -- Appalachian jockeys, grooms from the South -- all sorts of people who didn't fit in anywhere but the track. And our move rendered us social pariahs. Even some of our own relatives wouldn't speak to us."

Stillman typically uses "misfits" as a term of praise, applying it not only to herself but to the desert's plants and animals, some of which, like the Joshua Tree itself, don't exist anywhere else but the park. "I've always been simpatico with people who are not conventional. And I've always had a deep identification with people who've had turmoil and trouble in their lives."

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